Using Nanotubes to Make Cheaper, Cleaner Hydrogen Fuel

Hydrogen has a reputation as a clean source of energy, especially when compared to fossil fuels such as oil and coal. But there’s just one problem: You need to burn methane, itself a fossil fuel, to make hydrogen. So with current technology, hydrogen isn’t as clean as its reputation.

Jul 17, 2014 at 12:09PM

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Hydrogen has a reputation as a clean source of energy, especially when compared to fossil fuels such as oil and coal. But there's just one problem: You need to burn methane, itself a fossil fuel, to make hydrogen. So with current technology, hydrogen isn't as clean as its reputation.

Add to that, current technology is expensive because to isolate hydrogen you must create electrolysis reactions, which separates hydrogen atoms from oxygen atoms in water. Again, with current technology, you need expensive platinum as a catalyst for that process.

So hydrogen fuel isn't that clean and isn't that inexpensive – yet. But a team of researchers led by Tewodros (Teddy) Asefa, an associate professor of chemical and biochemical engineering at the Rutgers School of Engineering, says it's solved that problem.

In a paper published in Angewandte Chemie [Applied Chemistry] International Edition, Asefa and his colleagues report that they based their new catalyst not on platinum, but on inexpensive nanotubes, sheets of carbon one atom thick that are rolled into pipes 10,000 times thinner than a human hair.
And instead of relying on methane, hydrogen could be produced by electricity generated by such renewable sources as wind and solar energy, or even by nuclear energy.

Further, they say, the nanotube process is so efficient and today's emission controls are so effective that cars and even power plants could even use methane in the process and operate far more cleanly than they would using oil or coal.

The new technology is called "noble metal-free, nitrogen-rich carbon nanotubes." Asefa's team reports that the tubes function properly in any environment, whether basic, neutral or acidic, increasing their options for coupling with the most efficient oxygen-evolving catalysts that are important in separating oxygen and hydrogen atoms from water.

Further, they say, these nanotubes react catalytically with the hydrogen with nearly the efficiency of platinum. This would be analogous to the difference between two cooking vessels, one made of copper – an excellent but expensive heat conductor – and the other made of aluminum – nearly as good a conductor and much less costly.

There are several benefits of relying on hydrogen for energy. Among them is that it generates no air pollutants, especially if it is created without burning methane. Another reason is that it is plentiful: The United States produces 100 billion cubic feet of hydrogen each year, enough to power as many as 11,000 homes, according to the American Gas Association.

"Hydrogen has long been expected to play a vital role in our future energy landscapes by mitigating, if not completely eliminating, our reliance on fossil fuels," Asefa says. "We have developed a sustainable chemical catalyst that, we hope with the right industry partner, can bring this vision to life."

In fact, Asefa and his colleagues already have filed for a patent on their technology.

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4 in 5 Americans Are Ignoring Buffett's Warning

Don't be one of them.

Jun 12, 2015 at 5:01PM

Admitting fear is difficult.

So you can imagine how shocked I was to find out Warren Buffett recently told a select number of investors about the cutting-edge technology that's keeping him awake at night.

This past May, The Motley Fool sent 8 of its best stock analysts to Omaha, Nebraska to attend the Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholder meeting. CEO Warren Buffett and Vice Chairman Charlie Munger fielded questions for nearly 6 hours.
The catch was: Attendees weren't allowed to record any of it. No audio. No video. 

Our team of analysts wrote down every single word Buffett and Munger uttered. Over 16,000 words. But only two words stood out to me as I read the detailed transcript of the event: "Real threat."

That's how Buffett responded when asked about this emerging market that is already expected to be worth more than $2 trillion in the U.S. alone. Google has already put some of its best engineers behind the technology powering this trend. 

The amazing thing is, while Buffett may be nervous, the rest of us can invest in this new industry BEFORE the old money realizes what hit them.

KPMG advises we're "on the cusp of revolutionary change" coming much "sooner than you think."

Even one legendary MIT professor had to recant his position that the technology was "beyond the capability of computer science." (He recently confessed to The Wall Street Journal that he's now a believer and amazed "how quickly this technology caught on.")

Yet according to one J.D. Power and Associates survey, only 1 in 5 Americans are even interested in this technology, much less ready to invest in it. Needless to say, you haven't missed your window of opportunity. 

Think about how many amazing technologies you've watched soar to new heights while you kick yourself thinking, "I knew about that technology before everyone was talking about it, but I just sat on my hands." 

Don't let that happen again. This time, it should be your family telling you, "I can't believe you knew about and invested in that technology so early on."

That's why I hope you take just a few minutes to access the exclusive research our team of analysts has put together on this industry and the one stock positioned to capitalize on this major shift.

Click here to learn about this incredible technology before Buffett stops being scared and starts buying!

David Hanson owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway and American Express. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway, Google, and Coca-Cola.We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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